We are in very difficult times as governments and citizens do what we can to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve seen the effects for so many across the board; from health care & essential workers putting themselves at risk everyday to do their part, to small business owners trying to keep their life’s work going, to industry shutting down or retooling to serve the needs of the moment right to people trying to survive these days, either working from home or trying to get by after being laid off or losing their jobs.

None of this has been easy and for good reason, has left many to think about what we will do once this passes or look ahead to the recovery to come. This is true across all sectors, as some people are using this time to plan for what will come next, the possibilities that we could have then and what the best way forward might be. It seems pretty clear that things won’t go back to exactly as they were before, but what will the next steps and approaches be when the day comes that we exit this crisis? It was with that in mind that I read an interesting piece from yesterdays Globe and Mail that spoke to this, a piece that got my mind going about this topic:

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna has put her mind to what comes as we start to exit this crisis. In fact, it’s a bit comforting to hear that these conversations are happening at that level. But what I took away from the piece that sparked my mind was about how this conversation was framed, the historical context of it and how that applies today. The piece notes that the minister has been “reading up on former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included major infrastructure spending as part of the U.S. response to the Great Depression in the 1930s.”

It’s not a bad piece of inspiration to look at in theory, as that’s probably the most comparable event to compare the current circumstances to, and she wouldn’t be alone. We’ve seen many draw on Roosevelt’s New Deal now for a few years when it comes to proposing investments in new energy technologies, systems, and infrastructure. The term “Green New Deal” is one that has become a flash point for many partisans, either for or against it, but I expect that this concept will serve as some inspiration for what Minister McKenna eventually looks at.

But here is where applying this historical example runs into modern-day reality, and potentially in a way that could cause some serious discomforting problems for progressives. The way we do projects, big and small, have evolved a lot since the 1930’s for the better. Back in the 1930’s there was very little actual oversight or process in place when it came to building infrastructure, and the concepts of taking environmental impacts or Indigenous rights into any account were far from being the law of the land. Back then, governments could cut the cheques to pay for the project and construction could start very fast because of that. The number of projects that you could have considered to be “shovel ready” at that time would be very big, because it took very little to reach that threshold. The advantage that came with that circumstance back then was that it allowed people to get back to work faster, helping to deal with the underlying issues of unemployment and lack of incomes for families during the Depression.

But here in 2020 things are very different, as we have seen these things evolve. It takes much more for projects to become truly “shovel ready”, which is a good development for society. The infrastructure projects that we build today do a far better job of doing less environmental impact and addressing the concerns of communities than what we saw in 1930. But doing that extra work takes time. A great example of this is a project from back home for me, one that’s been bandied around for so many years: the widening of the Trans-Canada Highway from the Manitoba Border to Kenora, ON. This would be the kind of project that would be right up the ally of a “New Deal” approach, one that would do a lot of public good and would employ a lot of people.

Back in the 1930’s, green lighting a project would hinge on the engineering for the route and that would be about it. There would be no environmental assessments, no community consultations, no engagement with local Indigenous peoples. But in the current age, it took many years to get to the point where it got to in February of this year, the point where it’s “shovel ready”. That was the time it took to do the proper environmental assessments, to get the Indigenous consultations done right and to get it all ready to go. In the end, all that good work will make for a better project when construction starts this summer, better than it would from that perspective than the older method in the 1930’s.

But here is the dilemma this now brings for progressives, the same people who correctly have demanded that we have good environmental assessments and respect Indigenous rights when building such projects. There likely won’t be enough “shovel ready” projects out there to have the desired effect to be compared to the “New Deal”, and this will be especially true when it comes to projects that would meet the ideals of a “Green New Deal”. Even green projects need to go through environmental assessments and proper Indigenous consultations, so government can’t just start putting up solar farms and alike in the same way they did back in the 1930’s.

So when we get to this moment of recovery and we want to spur the economy forward with a Green New Deal, what’s going to give to make that happen? Will it be the speed to get things done fast, like was done in the Great Depression, or will it be the environmental assessments and Indigenous consultations that we rightly require today? I’m not suggesting that one is more valuable than the other, but this is the obvious pressure that will come when we reach that point. There are only so many projects like the one I mentioned above in the can ready to be put into action, so in order to do what many are asking for, something will have to give on some level.

I will be very interesting to see not just how governments deal with that reality, but how progressive parties and voters will react to this dilemma. There are no straight answers to this issue & how this is dealt with will go a long way to telling the tale about how our economic recovering coming out of Covid-19 will go. It will go a long way towards saying just how much of a “Green New Deal” is possible so fast, and how much, if any, water will be required to be put in the wine of progressive voters. This is not necessarily an either/or situation, but there is a conflict here that will need to be dealt with. The solution to that conflict may not yet but know, but I will be interested to see not just what it turns out to be, but how it will be received.

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